Friday, November 28, 2008

After the crash: The future of the publicly traded corporation

Years before the crash of '08 (complexity crash?) I'd wondered about the future of the Publicly Traded Corporation (PTC). For example, it takes about 10 years to grow a healthy specimen of complex software, but that's six years beyond the attention span of the average PTC.

Anyone watching the transformation of Microsoft from amoral pirate into yet another mediocre but successful corporation must note how all PTCs come to resemble on another. Everywhere we find lots of very bright and insanely industrious people producing, at the end of the day, mediocre products.

For a time Apple, almost alone among PTCs, seemed to have avoided the trap -- but perhaps a single exception only proves how strong the trap is. Personally, I think even Apple has succumbed. I use a lot of what they make, and I think their quality is deteriorating and, worse, they've lost their vision. In the end one maniacal genius leader was not enough; if we could see inside Apple I think we'd learn that they've lost a lot of irreplaceable talent in the past few years.

Of course these are not new concerns. Some were expressed in the book the Innovator's Dilemma; business professors have wondered about the structural problems of the PTC for many years. Now though, we also have the crash of 2008, and we're all noticing how Wall Street financial corporations changed their behaviors when they went from private partnerships to publicly traded corporations.

So here's a thesis, developed between Emily and me, so it has to be good.

The publicly traded corporation had a great run in the 20th century. Sure, it had flaws, but nothing's perfect. In a world of metal bashing and road building maybe those flaws didn't count for so much.

Times change. Things are more fluid now. It takes time to change a physical product line, but Google can terminate Lively in seconds. Most of all, a critical mass of people have figured out the weaknesses of the PTC. In retrospect, when corporations started paying the execs hundreds of times more than the worker bees, the end game was in sight.

So we can expect a lot of new regulation, but maybe what we really need to think about is the future of the publicly traded company. Do we need to look at a mixed model? How can we organize human work for the 21st century?

The PTC isn't going to vanish tomorrow. I think it will still be a dominant player twenty years from now. I do hope though, that by then we'll see much better alternatives emerging.

12/3/08: Possibly related - the decline of the large corporation. Now quite the same thing as I'm thinking, but a cousin.

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